The “Gray Divorce” Phenomenon Explained
The U.S. divorce rate has slowly but surely declined over the last couple of decades. Surprisingly, there is one statistic in particular that has done the exact opposite. The number of gray divorces—a common term referring to the separation of “gray-haired” couples over 50—has continued to rise.
Not only has the gray divorce rate doubled since 1990, but these “late life” divorces are predicted to triple by 2030. Considering that the overall divorce rate is in decline, there is a lot of speculation surrounding this phenomenon, leaving many scratching their heads. Why the change of heart? Why now?
To gain a better understanding of the surge in gray divorces, it’s helpful to consider the bigger picture and consider how divorce impacts each generation differently.
A Fresh Take on Millennials & Marriage
Research suggests that millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) might be playing a key role in the decreasing U.S. divorce rate.
The younger generation appears to share a different attitude towards marriage than their baby boomer predecessors. Many Americans perceive foundational differences in the ways older and younger generations approach marriage and divorce. Consider these potential reasons for the declining divorce rate among young people:
- Younger couples are more likely to cohabitate. Unmarried millennials face considerably less backlash for cohabitation than older generations. Boomers grew up in a vastly different world that upheld a more traditional view of marriage. Millennials don’t necessarily perceive cohabitation as a milestone to marriage, either. In fact, many young couples happily cohabitate without plans to marry.
- Millennials are getting married later in life. Only 44% of millennials are married today, versus 61% of baby boomers at a comparable age. Many young people express a desire to achieve financial security before settling down, such as paying off student loan debt. Studies show that even millennials who found “the one” are still waiting longer to tie the knot together.
- Young people are more cautious about marriage. Many millennials have expressed a fear of marriage—or rather, the failure of one. Possible explanations include the fact that the baby boomers have the highest divorce rate of any generation, meaning that many millennials were children of divorce. Other theories point to inflation, economic instability, and financial burdens that contribute to millennials’ cautious outlook. (and it’s safe to say that a global pandemic probably didn’t boost “happily ever after” morale, either).
- The younger generation is more educated than past generations. Studies reflect a correlation between education level and marital status, as millennials are more likely to marry a partner with the same or similar education level as them. Consequently, more young women are earning college degrees and working outside of the home, rather than adhering to traditional gender norms that restrict wives to the domestic sphere.
Why Are Americans Divorcing Later in Life?
While there is no concrete reason behind the gray divorce revolution, there are various explanations circulating around the continued surge in late-life divorces. Consider the following explanations for the gray divorce phenomenon.
#1. Baby boomers are more likely to remarry after divorce.
Baby boomers divorce at a consistently higher rate than other age groups. While millennials have become increasingly selective when choosing a lifelong partner, older couples often practice an alternative approach: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…or marry again, that is.
It makes sense that remarrying is more common among older couples—they’ve been around longer, after all—but it’s also worth noting how remarriage impacts the rate of gray divorce. Studies show that couples over 50 who remarry are 2.5 times as likely to divorce than those in their first marriage. For couples 64 and older, the chance of divorce is 4 times as likely.
#2. Older couples experience “empty nest syndrome” as adult children move out to attend college or join the workforce.
Raising children is no small feat. Eighteen years of invested time, energy, and money is a big commitment, and it isn’t uncommon for parents to wholly immerse themselves in family life as their kids take center stage.
The ensuing silence when children leave the nest can be bizarre, to say the least. Many married couples find themselves forced to confront any “back burner” items they pushed aside while parenting. When the unpredictable chaos of childcare fades, some couples come to the realization that they are no longer happy in marriage, prompting many gray-haired couples to consider divorce after their nest empties.
#3. Many couples struggle to adjust to retired life.
When couples retire, they are transitioning into a brand-new season of life. Retirement often means making considerable changes in lifestyle and routine. The average American spends one-third of their life working, so it’s only natural that so many of us struggle to adjust to unlimited free time.
Retirement is an exciting milestone that offers new opportunities for reflection, enjoying hobbies, or exploring new passions. For some couples, however, retirement is also a wakeup call. Some partners realize their spouse no longer “fits” in this new life stage for whatever reason, whether it be different core values, infidelity, or lack of sexual attraction. This can lead couples to file for divorce.
#4. Women are gaining more economic opportunities and financial freedom.
Attitudes on gender have changed drastically in recent decades. When baby boomers entered young adulthood, women still had very few economic opportunities, if any. It wasn’t uncommon for females to be pigeonholed into marriage for transactional purposes or other reasons, such as:
- Financial dependence on men
- Societal and familial pressures
- Little or no access to education
- Inability to join the workforce
- Fulfilling domestic and childcare responsibilities
Today, more women are earning college degrees than men, and females make up almost half of the American workforce. Economic gains, financial independence, and advances in healthcare and contraception have offered women more agency in romantic partnerships, allowing females to support themselves without the need to rely on a husband.
#5. Many older couples were socially conditioned to uphold more traditional values.
When baby boomers reached young adulthood, the sanctity of marriage took precedence over all else. Many modern values—such as premarital sex, hookup culture, cohabitation, and female autonomy—wouldn’t have been acceptable for older generations.
Young people aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit in modern society. Older generations also deserve to reap the benefits of a more progressive world. For some baby boomers, marriage was more of an obligation than a choice. From unbending gender norms to stigmas around pregnancy and sex, older generations didn’t always have the opportunity to marry for love or prioritize their personal happiness.
Like millennials, older individuals have the right to pursue healthy, fulfilling lives, whether that means remarrying the (actual) love of their life, cohabitating in contentment, or falling in love with the joys of single life.
It’s Never Too Late to Start Living the Life You Deserve
When it comes to your marriage, divorce doesn’t discriminate. No matter your generation, age, or dating history, ending a marriage will forever alter your life. While divorce is a stressful time for all involved parties, the impact of your decision isn’t limited to negative consequences.
Many separating couples (gray-haired or not) experience positive, healthy changes after ending a bad marriage. It’s important to prioritize your life by making the best decisions for your personal wellbeing.
A Skilled Divorce Attorney Can Help with Gray Divorce
If you’re considering a late-life divorce, it’s wise to seek legal counsel from an experienced divorce attorney. Even the most amicable separation can require extensive work to sort through decades worth of assets. Gray divorces can be a painstaking process as couples wade through unique issues of a long-term marriage, such as:
- Retirement assets
- Estate planning, wills, and trust administration
- Health and life insurance
- Long-term medical care
Don’t climb the mountain of gray divorce alone. Fenchel Family Law PC can help you map out the best course to achieve the goals you desire.
Considering a gray divorce? We can help guide your next steps. Call (415) 650-1112 or contact us online to request a confidential consultation.